Amelia Earhart Mystery Solved?

AmeIf you pay attention to recent media reports you may think that the mystery surrounding Amelia Earhart’s last flight has been solved, and that researchers have in fact found wreckage from her flight. Headlines read: “Mystery of Amelia Earhart Solved? Fragment From Missing Plane Identified,” and “Mystery of Amelia Earhart finally solved,” and “Amelia Earhart mystery – 1937 photograph could be clue to fate of aviator who disappeared on round-the-world flight.”

Those headlines were based on a recent press release and quotes from a particular researcher who has found a metal fragment, and claimed, “It was as unique to her particular aircraft as a fingerprint is to an individual,” and the patch “matches that fingerprint in many respects.

What does this mean? Is the mystery solved as it has been widely reported, or is this just another example of researcher enthusiasm? Lets revisit Ms. Earhart’s fateful flight and take a skeptical look at this “new” evidence.

In 1991, a group of researchers from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), then investigating Earhart’s disappearance, found a sheet of aluminum on the island of Nikumaroro in the Western Pacific. It has been in the possession of those researchers for the last 23 years. It is aircraft aluminum, but it did not seem to fit any of the parts for Earhart’s plane a Model 10 Electra. Recently a review of some photographs and subsequent re-evaluation of the metal fragment seems to link the fragment to Earhart’s plane. This piece of metal, a 19-by-23-inch sheet made of the same material as Earhart’s plane, appears to match a window patch on the modified Electra. Sounds like convincing evidence. But there are some underlying flaws in the whole hypothesis that Earhart ended up on this island.

The evidence for Nikumaroro as a landing site is not very strong. Brian Dunning did a very thorough review of Nikumaroro island as a probable emergency landing/crash site for Earhart in Skeptoid Episode 295. There he writes:

Nikumaroro, this tiny island where TIGHAR has recovered its artifacts, is in Kiribati, a nation of 100,000 people spread over millions of square kilometers of the South Pacific. People leaving artifacts come and go all the time. For example, pearl divers. Fleets of pearl boats have plied these waters since the 1800s. Every island and reef in the South Pacific has been visited countless times by pearl boats, who anchored, made camp on shore, and spent a few weeks free diving for oysters. Their exploits and histories have been published in dozens of books, such as Roy Miner’s 1941 volume Pearl Divers, and the many colorful tales in Frank Coffee’s 1920 book Forty Years on the Pacific. TIGHAR found evidence of campfires and fish bones on Nikumaroro and concluded “Amelia Earhart” who is not known to have visited the island; but I found no attempt made by them to exclude the pearl divers who are known to have camped there, and to have done so countless times over more than a century. TIGHAR appears to be dedicated to proving the least likely explanation for the artifacts.

Several artifacts have been speculatively linked to Earhart, each with little or no evidence, and all of them with plausible alternative explanations. Even if the artifact evidence for the island were more convincing, there is only an exceedingly weak probability that Earhart’s aircraft actually made it to that particular island. This has also been reviewed by Dunning. He continues:

From a navigational perspective, the fundamental assumption of TIGHAR’s theory is almost inconceivable. Fred Noonan was one of aviation’s top experts in using the latest navigational techniques and equipment, including the then-new E-6B flight computer, which (among other things) corrects for the effects of wind on speed and course. Nikumaroro is a full five and one half degrees of latitude south of Howland. That’s a massive, massive error; it’s simply not plausible that Noonan could have been that far wrong. Earhart was no slouch of a navigator either. Could they have made such an error without either of them catching it?

Dunning also notes that the number, degree, and kind of navigational errors required to put Earhart and Noonan on Nikumaroro would be nearly impossible, even with the primitive navigational equipment at their disposal.

Earhart’s flight path. Via Wikimedia.

Although none of these points completely precludes the possibility that this piece of aluminum was from Earhart’s plane. New evidence does have to overcome the unlikely possibility that Earhart could reach this island accidentally after a implausible navigation error. You would need some rock solid evidence to overcome the basic math of airplane fuel and distance. That raises the question: how good is this new evidence?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be very solid.

Although news stories are presenting it as a new discovery it really is not. This “new evidence” is a new wrinkle on an old piece of aluminium (if you will forgive the bad pun). Richard Gillespie has presented it before: in 1992 he delivered a sound bite with a similar amount of confidence, stating, “Every possibility has been checked, every alternative eliminated… We found a piece of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft.” His claim was immediately disputed by experts, who dismissed it by pointing out that the rivets used on this aluminum skin were not the type used on Earhart’s aircraft.

From then on the fragment remained a piece of interesting but unconnected Pacific-island debris. Recently Gillespie found a picture showing a window patch to Earhart’s plane, which may have been riveted in the manner that this piece was. Gillespie apparently thinks that this re-opens the door to the possibility that the aluminum skin came from Earhart’s Electra. Although this is an interesting idea about the aluminium fragment, it rests on a tenuous foundation. That has not stopped him from claiming that this fragment of aircraft aluminium is a “fingerprint” proving Earhart’s final landing spot. Similar to his previously overly enthusiastic affirmations, this claim is his opinion, not a fact. It is a claim that uses a presumptuous post-hoc explanation based on the idea that artifacts from the island are consistent with her final days on the island. A reasonable analogy would be someone saying that they found a pocket from Jimmy Hoffa’s shirt, matched it to a picture, and therefore have found his final resting place.

Gillespie and his team went to a Kansas facility that’s restoring an Electra like the one used by Earhart, and claims that the rivets seemed consistent with the pattern of rivets that would be used to patch a window. They did this by holding the fragment up to the inside of the plane. No independent researchers have confirmed their findings.

Even TIGHAR seem hesitant to refer to this as unequivocal evidence.

If the artifact is not the scab patch from NR16020, then it is a random piece of aircraft wreckage from some unknown type involved in an unknown accident that just happens to match the dozens of material and dimensional requirements of the patch.

I agree with first part of that statement completely. It is probably a random piece of aircraft wreckage. What you have is a piece of aluminum that may have been the correct size to patch the window as seen in the photo. The method they used to match it is at best a estimate, at worst a biased guess. I am no material engineer or aircraft-crash forensic specialist. Still it seems pretty obvious to me that this piece of metal has too many assumptions to make any decisions about it by holding it up to the inside of an aircraft.

Even allowing the giant assumption that Earhart made it to that island, I have several unanswered questions. Why wasn’t the photo of her plane used (it has known dimensions and measurements) to extrapolate to scale the size of the patch to see if it matches? Is the metal consistently shaped with the type of force that would need to be applied to tear it off the fuselage or destroy the fuselage? Would that force be something that would leave it in one piece? Is that something that a human would survive? Would the amount of force required to tear through the rivet holes leave the patch intact? Would crash forces tend to leave the rest of the metal in one piece or would it tear in other regions? What type of forces and stress has the metal experienced in the intervening years since she was lost? Could it have been torn into that shape after it came off an aircraft? I am certain that a crash-site specialist would have better questions, ones that I haven’t even thought of. But suffice it to say that there are known incongruities with this piece of metal.

There is a question about the age of the fragment. The piece has a marking on it consistent with the acronym ACLAD (Aluminum Clad). Aircraft skins were made of an aluminum alloy then cladded in pure aluminum to make them light, corrosion proof, and strong. Unfortunately the acronym ACLAD was not applied to parts until after WWII. Obviously, this is years after her flight was lost. TIGHAR has made claims that this acronym was used on aircraft from that era, but there is no documentary evidence or artifactual evidence from that era to support this claim.

Interestingly, TIGHAR has consistently speculated that a sonar irregularity close to the island may be Earhart wreckage. They do admit it may be many other things, even a reef. They are looking for funding to explore this possible crash site. I would guess that makes them reasonably motivated to see what they want to see related to this fragment, especially since a convincing piece of evidence would be a boon to funding this exploration. These motivated researchers have self-evaluated the patch and declared a match. They have not offered the patch for verification to any independent sources. TIGHAR is hardly an unbiased source to determine if the metal is reasonably part of a patch on Earhart’s plane.

In my opinion, this is a an indeterminate piece of wreckage with many possible sources. It was found on an island that is an improbable landing- or crash site for the ill-fated flight. This possible piece of wreckage is linked to Earhart by a pile of artifacts that can be found on any Pacific island with a history of modern human habitation.

The aircraft aluminum fails to be convincing proof of anything. It is certainly not a fingerprint level of evidence. It is difficult to convincingly link it to the plane, never mind overcoming the implausibility that Earhart ended up there. More likely this opinion is motivated reasoning by some researchers who truly believe that Earhart’s life ended on that island.

The Pacific Ocean is a huge, deep expanse and in all likelihood we will never really know what happened to her. Despite all our modern technology we haven’t yet found the wreckage of a plane magnitudes larger than Earhart’s, lost in an ocean magnitudes smaller, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Speculation is wonderful. It sparks the imagination and drives research. It doesn’t provide any answers, only systematic scientific investigation does.

Humans seem to have a need to provide romanticized endings to tragic events. Earhart’s final lonely days stranded on a desert island is a romantic ending to her flight. Creating a story can generate emotional attachment and that, in turn, can yield money for research. It is understandable why TIGHAR continues to pursue this theory. If independent researchers verify TIGHAR’s conclusions I am onboard with financing the deep-water exploration near Nikumaroro. Current evidence still places Nikumaroro as Earhart’s crash site in the realm of wild speculation.

Bottom line: there is no verifiable certainty that this metal is in fact metal from Earhart’s plane. Calling it a “fingerprint” is a vast exaggeration of its value as evidence.

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Further Reading:

Beyond the Black Box: The Forensics of Airplane Crashes

Failure Analysis of Engineering Structures: Methodology and Case Histories



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